What do Safranbolu, Turkey; Gyeongju, Korea; Cidade Velha, Cape Verde; and Philadelphia, PA, have in common? They are all World Heritage Cities. On November 6, the Organization of World Heritage Cities (OWHC) honored Philadelphia with a World Heritage City designation. Philadelphia is the first United States city to be recognized by the OWHC.
The mayor’s office and city leaders have been advocating for World Heritage City designation since 2013.
Philadelphia has the requisite historical chops: UNESCO named Independence Hall, where 18th century diplomats wielded pens over multiple founding documents, a World Heritage Site in 1979. In order to qualify as a World Heritage Site, a place or building must meet at least one of ten selection criteria. The selection criteria require a site to have a historical, political, cultural, aesthetic, scientific, or natural attributes of “outstanding universal value” to humankind.
Though UNESCO plays no role in designating World Heritage Cities, OWHC stipulates that a World Heritage City must have at least one UNESCO World Heritage Site. At its 13th annual gathering, the OWHC acknowledged Philadelphia’s political significance, voting to include the city in their pantheon of over 266 heritage cities at their latest meeting in Arequipa, Peru.
Benefits accrue to member cities. Through the OWHC, municipalities can share information on how to protect their cultural assets and promote heritage tourism. Mayor Michael Nutter hopes that the designation will increase investment in the city and strengthen its (already lucrative) heritage tourism sector.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site and an OWHC designation brings visibility to a city’s heritage, and encourages travel to chosen sites. Sites are sometimes damaged, however, when designated cities lack the tourism infrastructure to support the increase in visitors. Critics have also called out the OWHC’s list for its profound Eurocentrism. Though Philadelphia is a Western city, it does have the capacity to support increased tourism that the World Heritage City title may engender.